Power to the people in East Timor

It is estimated about 40,000 homes in East Timor – roughly 20 per cent of the still fledgling nation’s population – will never have access to electricity.

A small Melbourne-based organisation is taking a small, but significant step to put a dent in that figure.

For more than a decade, the Alternative Technology Association has been sending volunteers to villages outside Dili to install cheap solar systems in homes, schools, community centres and hospitals that live without connection to mains power.

In that time it has helped install solar power in more than 1000 buildings, including about 500 homes. Armed with a $250,000 prize from Google Australia, the group is now to escalate significantly a mentoring program by training 50 Timorese technicians to install and maintain the village lighting system in 1000 remote homes.

The local households will receive basic LED lighting and mobile phone-charging systems developed in Melbourne.

Association chief executive Donna Luckman said an important goal of the project was to build up an East Timorese solar industry.

“We’re trying to create a sustainable model that’s not just a fly in, do some work and fly out again,” she said.

Under the scheme, households will pay $10 to install the lighting system and then contribute $2 each month to a communal fund to pay for technician’s wages and maintenance costs.

Ms Luckman said the lighting system would prove cheaper than what households currently faced – paying between $2 and $8 a month to run kerosene lamps and stoves – and would help reduce pollution.

“If we can stop people using [kerosene appliances] it will have a much better effect on their health,” she said.

Victorian honorary consul for East Timor, Rae Kingsbury, said the project was “fantastic”, and likely to succeed given the association’s commitment to working in the country over a long period.

“They’re not just giving stuff, they’re training and teaching,” she said. “The Timorese need a lot of support and training – that’s a long-term, not short-term, project.”

The installation phase of the project is due to begin mid-2015.

This article originally appeared on page 17 of the Sunday Age newspaper on 2 November 2014.

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